Packing, Posting and Meeting Friends for Lunch and Tea

December 12, 2016, Monday: London

A Day Spent Mainly Packing:

Awaking by 7. 30 am in Maida Vale I used my phone to catch up with Twitter and email. It was not long before I washed, showered, got dressed and left to spend the entire morning at my office at NYU. I stopped at Burger King at Tottenham Court Road to pick up a breakfast sandwich and coffee and fortifying myself with this meal, I made my way to my office at Bedford Square.

In four days, I would be leaving for India where I would be spending 5 weeks. I was uncertain exactly what I should pack as the cool season (I cannot call it winter) is so mild that the kind of clothes one would wear in the UK in the summer would be just fine. On the other hand, the evenings can be cool and a couple of cardigans would not be out of place. I also had a bunch of shopping to do and since I had checked on the net and found out that I could take only one suitcase to India, I had such a hard time moving things from one suitcase to the next and weighing as I went along. My intention was to leave one suitcase in the premises of NYU and carry one of my suitcases to India. With Christmas shopping for family members, goodies such as Christmas puddings, Quality Street and Celebrations chocolates, lots of packets of powdered soups, a large fruit cake from M&S, packets of biscuits and other goodies taking space among my clothing, it took a great deal of ingenuity for me to try to finesse my packing in the most practical way.

Off for Lunch with a New Friend:

At 1.00 pm, I had a lunch appointment with a new friend I have made, Devika. She had suggested we meet at a South Indian restaurant called Chettinad that was right off Tottenham Court Road. It took me five minutes to walk from my office to the restaurant and I reached about ten minutes before Devika arrived.

We decided to have the Lunch Special which provided rice, a non-vegetarian (chicken) curry, a dal, a dry vegetable, a dosa stuffed with potatoes and a serving of raita. Everything was delicious and Devika and I had a lovely long catch-up on a number of aspects about our lives as we got to know each other better.

It was about 3.00 pm when Devika and I left the restaurant and made our way to Victoria where I had to keep my next appointment. We hopped into a bus as I intended to get to M&S to pick up a pair of shoes before my appointment…but as the bus crept along Oxford Street that was jammed with holiday shoppers, I changed my mind and decided to keep shoe-shopping for the next day.

Tea with a Friend at Victoria:

I had made plans to meet my friend Reshma at the lobby of the Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria as the station is too crowded. It had also begun drizzling…so Reshma was grateful to have to wait indoors. I arrived at the scheduled hour and we had a very affectionate reunion. She is the mother of a student I once taught–and, funnily enough, we have become good friends. Reshma had spent quite a long time in India and was not around in London for most of my stay. It was, therefore, a pleasure to be able to spend an evening with her.

We returned to Café Rouge which was the same place in which we had tea the last time we had met. Over decaff tea and a caffe latte, we had a long catch-up and had a lot to discuss.

But a couple of hours later, it was time for us to part company. Reshma saw me into a bus that took me to the Tube stop and from there, I went home after a day filled with practicalities and the company of good friends.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…





Mass in Westminster Cathedral, Breakfast at Dominique Ansel’s Bakery and At the Museum of London

December 11, Sunday: London

An Early Start:

Ever since I had arrived in London in late-July, I had been promising myself that I would attend Sunday Mass at Westminster Cathedral–the Catholic Church on Victoria Road (not to be confused with the more-famous Anglican Westminster Abbey). This would be the day I would go to the 9.00 am Mass–which involved leaving my friend Raquel’s place at 8.15 to make it in time.

Mass and Christmas Market at Westminster Cathedral:

Mass was wonderful. There was a visiting delegation of people from Italy and a bunch of Filipinos who conduct the services. I received Communion and at the end of Mass left, quite unexpectedly, to poke my head into the Christmas Market that they said was on in a Hall behind the church. I ended up finding about four DVDs of the British TV shows I have been collecting as well as two scented candles and with those items in a bag, I hurried off to meet my friend Roz for breakfast.

Breakfast at Dominique Ansel Bakery at Victoria:

My friend Roz and I had agreed that when I returned from my travels in Israel and France, we would meet for breakfast at Dominique Ansel’s Bakery at Victoria. Raquel and Jonas also decided to join us there and as I stood waiting for a bus to get me there from Victoria Road, I hoped I would not be late. I called Roz to tell her that I was running late and then along came a bus. I was at the spot at 10.20 only to find that Raquel and Jonas had arrived there and that Roz was keeping our spot in the line.

As is pretty well-known by now, Dominique Ansel, the Parisien patisieur took New York by storm when he invented the Cronut–a cross between a croissant and a donut. I had eaten one of these the day I took the coach from Victoria to Leeds and I had loved every last crumb of it. This time, with a Hazelnut Croissant in my hand, I have to admit that it was not quite as good as I expected. Roz and Raquel were also quite disappointed. Raquel found (as I did) that the hazelnut flavor was much too mild and Roz simply felt that there was too much going on with the concoction. With hot chocolate and coffee to wash our treats down, we had a lovely chat and then left. Roz said goodbye to us as she left for her next appointment after wishing us both Very Happy Holidays.

Off to Jo Loves:

Being on Elizabeth Street, I had decided that I would pop into Jo Loves, the perfume store on the same street and that I would take Raquel there with me and introduce her to the place. It was packed. I could barely get a foot in but somehow Raquel, Jonas and I managed to squeeze our way in and try out some of their offerings. I finally left with their ten perfume spritz sampler which would allow me to try them all and then buy a bottle of the perfume of my choice. It was a lovely idea and a delightful way to enable patrons to choose the fragrance that worked for them. I resolved to try the ten fragrances over the holidays and then buy the bottle of my choice when I returned to London again.

Off with Jonas to the Museum of London:

The next stop on my agenda was a quick nip into the Museum of London in order to see the golden coach of the Mayor of London before it disappears for the next four years for renovation. Jonas, Raquel’s 10-year old son, was keen to go with me and it was with him for company, that we bid goodbye to his mother and set off by bus and then Tube for the Museum.

We arrived at the Barbican soon enough and walked the short distance to the Museum of London. We had a very nice time getting there and after inquiring exactly where the coach was, we set off to find it. While there, I had the most bizarre experience. I requested a 20-Something to take a picture of Jonas and me standing by the coach. She told me that she was busy (she had been gazing at a display and doing nothing else!) and could not. I thanked her and said that I would try to find someone else. She replied that she did not like my attitude! I should have realized then that there was probably something wrong with her (mental illness being such a silent affliction!). I responded, “My attitude? I’m not sure I know what you mean.” To which she suddenly flared up and said, “You’re flirting with me! Stop flirting with me!” Okay, that was it. I had caught a nut job in full throttle. “Flirting with you?” I laughed. “Don’t kid yourself.” To which, she let out a stream of foul language despite that fact that I had a little boy with me. “Mind your language.” I said. “You are in the company of a child.” And with that, we walked away and found another sweet family whom we then requested to take our picture. Poor Jonas, the most timid little boy in the world, was shaking and it was all I could do to calm him down and tell him to try to overlook an unhappy woman who was probably having a bad day.

Off to NYU:

From the Museum, we took the Tube and made our way together to Tottenham Court Road so that I could get to my office at NYU where my suitcase and other belongings had been stashed. I was keen to get a hold of my computer and I carried it back with me to Raquel’s home to which I was then headed. Jonas, by then, had grown deeply exhausted and adamant about going back home. The entire morning had been too much for him to take and our encounter with the crazy lady, had ruined his mood.

So back on the Tube we went to Maida Vale and by 3.00 pm, the exhausted Jonas just flopped on the sofa with the telly while I sat with Raquel and chatted.

Making a Gingerbread House:

I was quite content to spend the evening at home with my friends and when Jonas invited me to make a Gingerbread House with him from the kit that his mother had bought him, I was delighted to comply. Not only would it allow me to continue to spend time with a kid I love, but it was the first-ever gingerbread house I would ever make and I was keen to give it a go. The next couple of hours flew by as Raquel got a spot of dinner together for us in the dining room. We sat down to eat pasta, meatballs, a delicious salad and cheese and crackers while having a nice chat with the entire family in attendance. And before we knew it, the day had ended and it was time to hit the sack.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

Final Day in Paris and Return to London

December 10, 2016, Saturday: Paris-London

Final Day in Paris and Return to London.

And so the day finally dawned when I would leave the City of Lights and get back to London. I awoke at 6.30 am, spent an hour catching up through wifi on email and Twitter and at 7.30 am, I began to look for breakfast. For the last couple of days, I had been trying to finish up all the food in my fridge and so I ate bits and bobs and went down to the vending machine for a mocha latte. I began packing right after as my flight from Charles de Gaulle airport was at 6.05 pm. This basically left me with the whole day to go where I pleased when my packing was done. But I was really so exhausted after all the walking I had done for the past week, that I simply stayed local. After accomplishing a great deal of packing, I took a break for a shower and then left my place to take the tram to Stade Charlety, the next stop, to get some chocolate from Franprix for the friends with whom I would be staying in London for a few days. Takign the tram ticked off the last To-Do item on my Paris List!

Back in my place with my boxes of chocolates, I continued packing, got rid of my garbage, emptied my fridge and put the last bits of my food together in a makeshift lunch that included the last of my smoked salmon, salad leaves, salad dressing, blue cheese and mixed nuts with honey-ginger yoghurt and macarons for dessert. By 1.30 pm, I washed up my lunch things and returned them to the kitchen (plate, bowl, glass, cutlery). I cleaned up, took pictures of my room and by 1.45, I was down at the Reception and returning my keys and saying goodbye to the place I have now called home twice in my life. I thanked them profusely downstairs for providing such a safe, comfortable and reasonably-priced space.

From the metro station, I took the RER (B) directly to Charles de Gaulle airport where I arrived at exactly 3.00pm for my 6.00 pm Air France flight to London. I arrived at Heathrow at 7.30 pm local time and taking the Tube, I alighted at Warwick Avenue where I reached at about 10.00 pm. I walked to my friend Raquel’s dupleix flat where her husband Chris came to give me a hand with my baggage expecting me to have an outsized case after three weeks away from London. As it turned out, it amazed them all to realize that I had traveled with just a small backpack.

Raquel very kindly fixed me a bowl of her pasta and meatballs and after a long free-wheeling chinwag, I gave them the gifts I had brought for them (Fragonard perfume for Raquel, chocolates for Chris and Jonas) and then called it a night.

It was great to be back in London (which is like a second home to me) and to feel that easy sense of familiarity—although, to be perfectly fair, within a day of being in Paris, it had felt like home to be as well!

Until tomorrow, cheerio…









Exhausting Second-Last Day in Paris: Parc Montsourris, Eiffel Tower, La Defence, Sacre-Coeur, Musee de Louvre

December 9, 2016, Friday: Paris

An Exhausting Second-Last Day in Paris—Eiffel Tower, La Defence, Sacre-Coeur and The Louvre

Awaking at Cite-Universitaire to the sound of the tram bell on Boulevarde Jourdan, I showered, dressed and decided to try to find a coffee nearer at hand than the café of the complex (which was a five minute walk away in the adjoining building). The Receptionist on duty, the lovely Morgane, showed me how to use the vending machine and for 65 cents, I got myself a café latte and walked with it and my Pierre Herme croissant Poire William across the street into Parc Montsourris. This venture ticked another item off my To-Do List as I had promised myself that I would try to find the time for a ramble in this park in which I have spent many a lazy hour in past years.

Breakfast in Parc Montsourris:

There are not a lot of visitors in Parc Montsourris at 8.30 am on a late autumn morning. The decidedly nippy weather does not attract too many—and not on a working morning. However, there were a few dog-walkers around, a few energetic joggers and a couple of Asian men doing tai chi exercises! I munched on my croissant and sipped my coffee while my ankles were sniffed by curious dogs. It was great to start the day in this serene fashion as it grew frenzied as it progressed for I was trying too hard to fit in a whole lot of major sights into my second-last day—in order to leave tomorrow free for re-packing and closing shop in my room at Cite-Universitaire.

On the Metro to Climb the Eiffel Tower:

My main aim of the day was to make it to the summit of the Eiffel Tower—another first-time experience for me. Every time I have been to Paris in the past, the serpentine lines have put me off trying to get to the top. Since it was winter, I presumed there’d be fewer tourists and that the wait would be shorter.

I rode the No. 6 metro train towards Charles de Gaulle/L’Etoile and got off at Bir-Hakeim. If the name sounds familiar, it is the spot in Afro-French history notorious for one of the most important French battles ever fought during World War II. There is information about this battle on the platform of the metro station (which is overground).

Viewing the Jewish Memorials of the Velodrome d’Hiver (the Vel d’Hiv):

The metro stop of Bir-Hakeim is where you get off to see the Eiffel Tower. But it is also where the notorious Velodrome d’Hiver once stood. It was a stadium for cycling tournaments and it had once attracted thousands of Parisians to its crowded stands. During World War II, after Paris was occupied by the Nazis and the Jewish purge began, Parisian police began rounding up Jews from the Marais and bussing them to the Vel d’Hiv where they were held for five days with barely any food or water. A number of children and elderly Jews perished here even before they were further bussed to Drancy or Beaune from where they were deported to the concentration camps. I had become aware of the Vel d’Hiv and its association with World War II history after reading the wonderful novel by Tatiana de Rosney called Sarah’s Key—of which a rather wonderful movie has also been made. (It is, in fact, a text in the course I teach on ‘Migration, Marginalization and Partition’ at NYU).

Descending from the metro platform in the elevator to ground level, I asked the staff at the ticket window where I could find the memorials. I had already visited one of them before—it was then a large marble slab crowned with wreaths on the main road. But when I got there this time, I found the entire area cordoned off behind construction partitions. On reading the information available around it, I discovered that a major renovation project is currently on and that the small memorial is going to become a most impressive spot with a visitor center and other such monuments added to it. It will probably be finished in the next couple of years.

However, the ticketing clerk also directed me across the main road to the Quai de Grenelle where another monument to the fallen Jews is to be found. I followed his instructions, crossed the street and found myself in a small strip of garden—rather forlorn at this time of year—with a very large and impressive sculpture at the end of the pathway on the Isle de Grenelle (the third island in Paris about which not many people know. It is the same island that also contains a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty). I walked along the pathway and reached the sculpture which depicts a Jewish family of varied ages sitting in despair around their meagre belongings with little knowledge of the fact that they were being moved towards their deaths. I found the monument deeply moving.

Off to the Eiffel Tower:

Having ticked another item off my To-Do List, I walked quickly for another ten minutes towards the Eiffel Tower. As I had expected, the line was barely there. I reached at about 10.30 and stood in line to get a ticket for about 15 minutes and for another five minutes to get into the high-speed elevators that whisk you to the top for 17 euros. Had I come in the summer, I would have waited in line for at least two hours!

I have to say that I was excited about getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I have always loved this monument, the strange vision of Charles Eiffel who thought it okay to create a great wrought-iron tower on the banks of the Seine that would rival every other building in height and prominence.  Its wonderful design fascinates me and I love the decorative work around its various tiers. Going up, however, is altogether another experience and I loved every second of it.

The ride up in the elevator is itself quite chest-heaving for you rise to unbelievable heights so quickly that you are likely to feel a twinge of vertigo—I certainly did—until you adjust to the sudden difference. You will also find your ears popping at the difference in air pressure. There are also stairs, of course, and you can climb up all the way to the top—but I was not built of such stern stuff (at least not after having climbed to the top of Notre-Dame and the Arc de Triomphe on this visit!). When you get off at the first level, you are amazed at the sights you see. Sadly, although there was no rain, the air pollution in Paris had caused a hazy smog to settle over the city. The pictures I got were, therefore, not the best. But as I circumnavigated the city, I saw every monument and could pick it out so clearly: the Dome of Les Invalides Church, the mountain (Montmartre) topped by the Church of Sacre-Coeur, the many bridges over the Seine, etc. There are restaurants and souvenir stores and all sorts of attractions to keep the visitor busy in addition to the thrill of taking pictures or posing for selfies against the backdrop of Baron Haussmann’s glorious city.

When you are done on this floor, you take the elevator again to another level which allows you to climb to the summit. Here you can see the office that Charles Eiffel used when the tower was under construction. It is the same office in which he entertained a visitor in the form of a fellow-inventor Thomas Alva Edison of the USA who used the tower and its height to test his own wireless and radio inventions. The view from this level is even more scintillating for the mountain on which Sacre-Coeur stands is dwarfed. You also can see the Arc de Triomphe very clearly as well as the avenues that radiate from out of it to form a star (the Etoile) after which the entire square (or circle) is named. You can see the island of Grenelle and Lady Liberty holding aloft her torch. You can see the Palais de Chaillot with its lovely classical semi-circular design. You can see the Musee de Quai Blanci designed again by the famed Jean Nouvel only a few blocks away with its interesting glass walls and its lovely landscaped garden. Basically, from this height, you can see everything and you can see it from an entirely novel and quite incredible perspective. So, in every respect, I was completely floored by my first-time rising to the Eiffel Tower’s summit and it was with difficulty that I dragged myself away after using the facilities on the lower level again. It was 12.30 pm by the time I left the premises after taking a few pictures.

Off to La Defence:

Instead of walking towards the metro station at Bir-Hakeim, I decided to cross the river Seine just in front of the Eiffel Tower and walk past the gardens of the Palais de Chaillot towards the metro station at Trocadero. From there, I took the metro to La Defence, a rather longish journey (but free today as a result of Paris’ continued pollution) as I wanted to see the gigantic contemporary arch that has been built there, up close and personal. It was very easy to get there and, basically, all I expected was to see the Arch and to take a few pictures.

What I did not expect to find and what I did see was a huge Christmas Market that had sprouted up in the courtyard that is surrounded by a concrete jungle—for La Defence is similar to London’s Canary Wharf or New York’s Financial District. It is a glass and concrete jungle filled with banks and other financial institutions and surrounded by upscale stores that cater to the heavy-walleted. Naturally, I cannot pass by a Christmas Market without browsing through it and since it was lunch-time, I was fortunate to be offered a lot of tasters—cheese, honey, nougat, sausages. It was lovely to nibble as I had begun to feel hunger pangs. After I had spent about half an hour taking in the sight of all these edible goodies and having passers-by take my picture against the towering arch, I got on to the metro again and set off for my next destination: the Church of Sacre-Coeur at Montmartre.

Visiting Montmartre:

On past visits to Paris, I have thoroughly scoured Montmartre which is rich in artistic history—many Impressionist painters had either made their homes in the area of had hung out here (as Picasso did at the Lapin Agile, a local bar). On this occasion, with less time to linger, I made it quickly out of the metro station at Abbesse (which I always admire for its original Art Nouveau-style arched iron-work at the metro stairwell) and followed signs along Rue Yvonne Le Tac to the funicular train. Indeed, on past visits, I have actually climbed up and down the lovely set of stairs that leads to the top of the mountain. This time, I was content to do it the easier way.

The funicular train, which is ordinarily accessible by a metro ticket, was also free today. Luckily, there were not a lot of people and although one of the trains was out of service (annoying!), the ride to the top did not involve a wait of longer than 20 minutes. They were, however, 20 minutes on my feet—so my fatigue levels were also growing consistently as the day progressed.

Visiting The Church of Sacre-Coeur:

Once I got off the funicular train, I made my way towards the main entrance of the church as that was my first priority. There were lots of people milling around the steps that provide strategic picture ops as the entire city of Paris seems to lie at your feet. I had my own picture taken and then began the ascent to the church entrance.

Mass was going on when I entered the church—so I crept around as quietly as I could, stayed on the last pew and said a prayer. The altar is remarkable for its mosaic work and its lovely sculptures of Christ. There was a crib up already—even though it was only early December. A few minutes later, I was out of the church and making a right out of the exit towards the Place du Tertre.

The Place du Tertre is the biggest attraction of the area. It is a cobbled square in which artists take up residence to paint portraits, do caricatures or present you with pen and ink drawings of your likeness. Through the years, almost all members of our family have had their likeness sketched here and I have framed versions of them in our home in Connecticut. The square is surrounded by restaurants and eateries that spill on to the pavement during the summer in the typical French concept of the café-trottoir. However, in winter the entire atmosphere is different. The large trees have lost their foliage and rise bare towards the skies. There are fewer artists, fewer people and the pavement chairs and tables were nowhere to be seen. I walked around the area and felt somewhat forlorn by its emptiness. There was no reason to linger any longer although the souvenir shops were tempting. A few minutes later, I walked as briskly as I could across the cobbled streets and arrived at the stop for the funicular train from where I made my way down quite easily.

Since there was a Fragonard shop right at the funicular train stop, I popped into it to try to find a particular item I was seeking: a small set of ten perfumes. Alas, it has been discontinued—all they carry now are the ten eau de toilettes (much lighter versions) of their signature fragrances.

Off to the Louvre:

With three major items ticked off my To-Do List for the day, it was only left for me to make a visit to the Musee Louvre. It was about 4.30 pm and I knew that since the museum is open on Fridays until 9.45 pm, I had several hours ahead of me to view its treasures. I have, of course, been to the Louvre several times—and I do have my favorite canvasses to which I say Hello each time I am there. I also adore the building itself—the gorgeous confection of a Palace that the Bourbon kings added to as they multiplied their wealth and their desire for luxury. The galleries themselves are so splendidly decorated that most of the time I am taking in their treasures rather than the stacks of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts that actually make up this diverse and quite overwhelming collection.

Emerging out of the metro through a quite different way this time (underground, through a large upscale mall), I arrived at the base under the marvelous glass triangular canopy created by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. I headed straight for the cloak room, left my bag there, then headed to the ticket office where my Met ID card got me free entry into the museum—a huge bonus! With the museum’s floor plan in my hands, I tried to find my way through the three wings that comprise this humongous space: the Denton, Sully and Richelieu wings.

So here is what I managed to cover on this trip, beginning my wandering at 5.00 pm.

  1. Winged Victory of Samotrace (classical sculpture believed to be figurehead on ship’s prow).
  2. The Borghese Athlete.
  3. The Battle of Romano by Paolo Ucello
  4. Portrait of Grandfather and Grandson by Ghiurlandaio.
  5. The Visitation by Sandro Botticelli
  6. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vince.
  7. Madonna of the Rocks by L da Vini.
  8. Portrait of Italian Female Aristocrat by L da Vinci
  9. Madonna with St. Anne and Jesus by L da Vinci
  10. Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veroneze
  11. Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
  12. Odalisque by Titian
  13. Coronation of Napoleon by Jacque-Louis David
  14. Portrait of Female French Aristocrat by J.L David
  15. Murder of Horatio by J.L. David
  16. Rape of the Sabines by J.L. David
  17. Crown of St. Louis (This is a replica). I adore the gallery in which this is displayed as it is stacked with portraits of French worthies from the Baroque period.
  18. Crown of Josephine
  19. Michelangelo Showing the Pope his Plan for St. Peter’s Basilica.
  20. The Seated Scribe
  21. Venus da Milo
  22. One of the Parthenon Marbles
  23. Dying Slave by Michelangelo
  24. Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix
  25. Raft of the Medusa by Gericault
  26. Two Sisters Readings by Renoir
  27. The Astronomer by Vermeer
  28. Lace Maker by Vermeer
  29. Lute Player by Franz Hals
  30. Self-Portrait by Rembrandt
  31. Bathsheba by Rembrand

Needless to say, in addition to seeing all these highlights and more, I took loads of pictures of the interiors, especially the ceilings as their decoration is quite lavish. Also as darkness fell over the city, the Louvre was illuminated with the loveliest, softest lighting, I took many pictures of the courtyards of the Palace of the Louvre—but none did justice to their beauty.

I was ready to collapse with fatigue by the time I finished at 8. 30 pm. I also had the good fortune of meeting an Indian art scholar called Usha Sharma who told me that she teaches courses on Indian Art in Paris. I hastened out of the museum and took the metro to get myself back to my place where I reached at 9.30 and went straight to bed.

My second-last day in Paris had been chocobloc—but what a blast I had! As it turned out, every item of my To-Do and To-Taste List had been covered! I could pay myself on the back as I fell asleep for tomorrow, all I have to do is pack and clear up his room and check out.

A demain…



First-Time Forays Into Islamic Paris…and Other Attractions.

December 8, 2016, Thursday: Paris

First-Time Forays into Islamic Paris…and other Attractions

For some odd reason, I had a rather late start today—probably was not woken up by the tram bell outside my window. A 7.45 am rising is late by my standards. I had a Pierre Herme Ispahan croissant for brekkie with orange juice, showered and got dressed. I left my place at 10. 45 after carefully drawing up a route that would take me to parts of Paris into which I had never before ventured.

Exploring the Jardin des Plantes:

My first stop of the day was at the Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Garden) and the reason for my visit was the magnificent novel by Anthony Doerr called All The Light You Cannot See, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the best novel I had read in 2014. The initial section of the novel is set here in the Botanical Garden in general and the Museum of Natural History in particular as it is where the museum is located. The father of the female protagonist of the novel, Marie-Laure, is one of the curators of the museum and his task is to keep the keys of the museum safe as well as a fictional stone that is usually on view at the Museum of Natural History. As an old woman and a survivor of World War II, Marie-Laure returns to Paris and makes her home close to the Museum and to the Botanical Garden where she passes most evenings in the company of her grand-son.

Because I had been so taken by this splendid novel and because I had never been to the Botanical Garden, I decided that I would visit it this time round as well as check out the Museum of Natural History. I was completely floored by the Botanical Garden. It was huge—extensive and well-manicured. There are alles of linden trees (which, because it was nearly winter, were stripped of their foliage) that provide wonderful walking paths through the garden. The alles are lined on both sides by glass conservatories and by a number of buildings. I soon discovered that those buildings comprise the Museum of Natural History as it is not one building but about 12—scattered all over Paris, although about six of them surround the alles. I took several pictures of the garden and the conservatories and then made my way into the Museum of Paleontology where a number of dinosaur skeletons attract large numbers of children. Unfortunately, each of the museums has a different entry fee—there is no single fee to cover them all. By the time one sees them all, one has spent a small fortune. They would not recognize my Met ID card and I did not wish to spend too much time in any one of them. I decided, therefore, to merely poke my head into the Museum of Mineralogy where the fictitious stone would have been stored and to take a couple of pictures there.

Then, I left the museum and the Botanical Garden and went on to the next attraction on my list—the rarely-visited Grand Mosque of Paris.

The Grand Mosque of Paris:

To enter the Grand Mosque in Paris is to enter into an altogether different world. It is hard to believe that you are in Europe—you would think you were somewhere in Northern Africa: in Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco (artisans from these countries had been specially commissioned to undertake the job). The mosque is large and beautiful. It has all the characteristics of Islamic architecture plus gorgeous decorative tile-work that is reminiscent of the Al-Hambra in Granada, Spain. The central courtyard concept is in force with rooms radiating out from a very lovely garden that fills one with a sense of spiritual serenity. There is a towering minaret in the North African style. Visitors are free to wander around anywhere—there is a really large hall with a central fountain with all sorts of decorative tile work. The only room you that non-Muslims cannot enter is the Prayer Room itself which contains the Mihrab. Since it was not a Friday, it was rather quiet at the mosque but a few worshippers were around, both in the corridors and in the Prayer Room (you can get a quick glimpse from the main door). I took so many pictures as I was completely enthralled by this unusual structure right in the middle of Paris—it was so hard for me to believe that right across the street was the 19th century Botanical Gardens. It really is a quite distinctive place to visit and I am glad I went.

The mosque has a restaurant attached that offers Middle Eastern and North African cuisine such as mezzes and tagines. It is set in a lovely shady garden (if you prefer to sit outdoors) or inside in a space that resembles a souk or a casbah. As I said, everything about this place is enchanting—even if you are not a Muslim (perhaps especially if you are not a Muslim).

Visiting the Institute du Monde Arabe:

Co-incidentally, although I had not actually planned for it, I went from one Islamic space to the next—but from the sacred to the secular. When I lived in Paris, a few years ago, I used to pass in the bus by this striking building that I realized was designed by the renowned French architect, Jean Nouvel. It is on most tourist maps of Paris, but somehow I had never found the time to explore it. This visit would remedy the omission.

It was a twenty minute walk from the Mosque to the Institute which is sweetly located on the banks of the Seine. It is a nine-story structure that looks like a cube. It has a huge Omani dhow right outside it—a gift from Oman whose government has sponsored the special exhibition on right now called ‘Sea-farers of the Mediterranean.’ I was fortunate that my Met ID was recognized here. I was handed different ticket stubs to get to the different floors, on each of which they was a different exhibition. Two floors contain objects that remain permanently in place—they range from illuminated Korans to ancient pottery. I also saw a special exhibition on the Bhiksha Oasis which is in the North African country of Algeria. The ‘Sea-Farers of the Mediterranean’ exhibition was splendid. It carried vast amounts of material on a number of countries, explorers and navigators from the Islamic world whose courage and vision opened up the area to the rest of the world.

In-between seeing the floors, I sat on a bench and ate my smoked salmon baguette. I stayed for another hour as I rode up and down the glass elevators inside the building which allowed me to admire the wonderful architectural work of Nouvel with its emphasis on thousands of pipes that form sharp angles in the interior or the building. The top-most floor is an empty viewing terrace with a small café attached to it. It does, of course, offer lovely views of Paris and of the Seine and I took them all in with deep pleasure. When I was done, I walked out of the Institute, quire pleased that I have covered yet another item on my To-Do List.

A Bit of Shopping:

From this point on, I decided to go out in search of a French beret together with one of the woolen caps that are now sporting fur pom-poms. My idea was to detach one of the pompoms and sew it on to one of the berets in imitation of a favorite hat I had once owned but which I had lost, much to my sorrow. This specific need involved getting to the side streets around the Cathedral of Notre-Dame where the inexpensive souvenir stores sell the sort of item I was seeking. It took me absolute ages and a great deal of sweat equity to track down the hats I wanted at the right price. After scouring at least half a dozen stores, I found exactly what I wanted and couldn’t have been happier.

Ice-Cream, Marron Glaces and Other Goodies at the Ile de St. Louis:

Since I was so close to the Ile de Saint Louis, I had to go in search of some ice-cream at Berthillon. And after I had my treat, I stepped into a cookie store where I received a few more goodies for sampling. Then, on passing a candy shop, I stepped in, on impulse, to buy myself a marron glace (glazed chestnut) as this is a French specialty that is very popular at Christmastime and which I had never tasted. Keen to see what all the fuss was about and wondering why these little confections are so expensive, I bought myself one and was completely surprised—both at the taste and the texture of it—it was spongy, not hard (and I am still wondering what all the fuss is about!). But then there you have it! Another item ticked off my To-Taste List!

Off to the Bastille for a Croque Monsieur:

Also on my To-Eat List before I left Paris was a really good Croque Monsieur—which, as most people know, is a ham and cheese sandwich that is dipped in a Mornay sauce and grilled. I have loved Croque Monsieurs since I first tasted them, about thirty years ago. And on every trip to France, I make sure I eat at least one. When I lived in Paris, I made them at home very frequently for it is the wonderful. combination of smoked ham and Swiss cheese (found most flavorfully in France) that make the best Croques.

Well, having done my research on the internet (to find the best Croque Monsieur in Paris), I was directed to the Cafe des Phares which is right at the Place de la Bastille. So I went on the metro from ‘St. Mich’ (as St. Michel is known) to Bastille and as soon as I emerged from the metro, I spied the restaurant across the wide circle.  I made a beeline for it and settled myself down at a table and gave my order for a Croque Monsieur and a café au lait—it would be a very early dinner.

My Croque was wonderful. It was best when it was freshly served to me and since I love eating my food piping hot, I did not wait too long for it to cool down. As it cooled, it got less and less succulent—in fact, it started to get rubbery as the melted fondue-like cheese hardened. Served with a salad and my coffee, it was a great meal. As you can see, I seem to have lost my inhibitions altogether about dining alone in restaurants. The French seem to have no problem with it at all and seem not in the slightest bit surprised when I request a table for one and place a single order. As it turned out, at the next table was seated an African-American couple who, lost little time in getting friendly with me. We had a very nice conversation. He happened to be a former restauranteur who has lived in Paris for the past forty years and she, his friend, turned out to someone in international finance who was taking a year off to travel and had made Paris a temporary base. One of the best things about being a solo sojourner is that you make friends with all types of people who reach out and include you in conversation—so that you are never really completely or uncomfortably alone.

A little while later, after clearing my bill, I took the metro from Bastille and got back home. As I had a very early dinner and had sat up communicating on my computer to so many people, I had myself a late-night snack of salad and yoghurt and then fell asleep just past midnight.

A demain…

Parisian Museums and More–Musee de la Mode and Musee de L’Homme

December 7, 2016, Wednesday.

Museums and More…

     In keeping with my resolve to see as many new places in Paris as possible, today, I awoke and decided to go to the Musee de la Mode de la Ville de Paris (the Museum of Fashion)—after all, there is no city in the world more a la mode than Paris.

Brekkie at the Café of Cite-Universitaire:

Carrying one of Pierre Herme’s croissants with me, I went in search of a cup of coffee. As I remembered that Cite-Universitaire has a well-serviced cafe, I showered, dressed and left my room to find it. It also ticked off one more item from my To-Do List (a Walk around Cite-Universitaire).

At the counter, I ordered a Breakfast Menu Complet which came with a croissant, a small roll, butter, jam, a pot of strawberry yoghurt, a pack of orange juice and a cup of coffee.  I was certainly not going to eat it all—so I ate the Herme croissant and had the coffee. The rest I  deposited in my room (for future breakfasts). I then hopped into the metro and went off to Rue Raspail to find the Musee de la Mode which opened at 10.00 am.

Exploring the Musee de la Mode:

The Musee was also empty when I got there. However, before I even entered it, I got sidetracked by a street market on Rue Raspail and I went for a long browse through stalls filled with fruit, veg, nuts, dried fruit, snacks, cheese, meat, etc. What I did leave with was a black wool beret that I picked up for 10 euros (but which I think, now, was a rather foolish buy that I might not even wear!). But I rarely make such purchases—so I do not want to be too hard on myself.

At the museum, which is located in a lovely hotel particulier with a curved pathway leading to the entrance (very similar to the Musee Maillol) that is known as the Palais Galliera, I was given free entry with my Met ID card. Inside, although small, there are some elements that remain memorable. It takes you through a short history of French haute couture. The big names and some of their works are present—a lot of Givenchy pill-box hats, for instance, as popularized by Jackie O. There are gowns by Chanel and other Famed French designers who made a mark on the fashion scene with their vision and style. None of the exhibits are permanent–they are constantly changed. When I went, I found gowns, dresses, shoes, hats—some very wearable, others outrageous. I was not sure what to expect and I have to say that I was not disappointed. As a capsule of French fashion, it was quite interesting.

Off to NYU-Paris:

I left the museum before 12 noon as I had an appointment with my colleague Eugene at Boulevarde St. Germaine where NYU-Paris is located. He has spent a year teaching in Paris and since I was keen to visit our premises in France, he offered to meet me, give me a tour, introduce me to a few staff members and students before we had a coffee together.

Accordingly, I arrived at the venue at 1.00 pm and had a nice reunion with Eugene. NYU is located in a nondescript building on the main road—so it really does not have a campus. It occupies a few of the top floors of the building. Eugene took me straight up to the topmost level for exciting views of the city. It was quite stunning really, and I am glad we started off there. From that point on, we took the stairs as we passed through student lounges, classrooms, administrative offices and the like. He introduced me to a few of the senior staff members and after taking a few pictures, we set off for a small bistro at St. Germaine where we had a coffee and talked shop. Unfortunately, Eugene was caught up with end-of-term grading and could not stay long. However, he did invite me to join his class at 3.00 pm. for a tour of the Musee de l’Homme. Since I had never been there, I decided to do just that. However, with another hour and a half to spare before I needed to return to NYU, I made the lightning decision to re-visit the Cluny-Thermes which is also known as the Musee des Moyen Ages (Museum of the Middle Ages) to see the series of tapestries that is known as the ‘Lady and the Unicorn’.

A Return to the Musee des Moyen Ages:

I discovered this museum rather late in my Parisian experience, but it has become one of my favorites in Paris. With just one hour to spare, I got myself a free entry (thanks to my Met ID card) and raced immediately to the special round room at the top of the gorgeous Gothic building that is used to house the series of tapestries. They are best viewed together and this room makes the ideal venue from which to take them in.

I took pictures of each of the tapestries that depict an unknown lady and her maid in a garden surrounded by a variety of animals and birds. They are said to depict the five human senses (sight, sound, hearing taste, touch) through interesting representations. The sixth tapestry is said to represent the sixth sense (or conscience). Filled with an abundance of detail, one can gaze at each tapestry for ages and admire them endlessly. I had a short time there but I derived immense pleasure from looking at them minutely and taking pictures. Then, I hurried off to meet Eugene’s class and used the short ten minute walk to eat my smoked salmon sandwich.

Off to the Musee de l’Homme with NYU Students:

I arrived on schedule at NYU and met Eugene and his class in the lobby. We set out immediately, taking the metro to Trocadero—once again, we got the opportunity to ride on the No. 6 train that took us across the Seine past the Eiffel Tower. At Trocadero, we walked past the Palais de Chaillot to the Museum. Eugene had made a group booking and we were ushered past the entrance into the main hall.

The Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Man) is devoted to Anthropology. I had never been inside and, in fact, had never even heard of it. I did not think that I would find it fascinating, but indeed I did. It is beautifully laid out and wonderfully curated and contains a treasure trove of large and small items from every part of the world that are superbly displayed. The falling cascade of busts of males and females from varied parts of the world is itself a reason to go. They are superbly carved in wood with amazing detail. Other things that caught my eye was a fallen elephant with its guts exposed and tumbling out—we had seen a similar sight in real life on a rhino in South Africa. Best part of all, the museum offered brilliant views of the Eiffel Tower from its many windows and because we were at an elevated level, we had the chance to see the many sculptures scattered around the premises from new and interesting angles. As the evening wore on, as night fell and as the lights came on at the Tower, we got even more stirring pictures.

After spending about two hours at the museum, enjoying the commentary of my colleague, listening to questions raised by our NYU students and pondering their comments, we called it a day. The students left, Eugene and I walked to the metro station and then parted ways.

Christmas Market on the Champs-Elysses:

I hopped off at the Champs-Elysses and, on emerging at ground level, found myself stunned by the fairyland in which I found myself. The famous avenue was ablaze with Christmas fairy lights and color as I had been deposited in the very midst of its well-renowned Christmas market that occurs at this time of year. I had an appointment for dinner with my French friend Livia at 6.00 pm and with an hour to spare, I began to check out the stalls. I have to admit that I was really exhausted throughout most of my time in Paris as I was simply trying to bite off more than I could chew and barely gave my legs any time to rest. The end result was that my right knee began to hurt and I was often so fatigued, I simply had to flop down somewhere. Still, I did not let it deter me from doing what I wished to accomplish.

The Christmas market is huge—it spans both sides of the Champs-Elysses. It features a great deal of German food stalls—there is bratwurst and hot gluhwein (mulled red wine). On the French side, there is raclette and Croque Monsieur. There are also a lot of stalls selling crafts—if you are in need of Christmas presents, this is where you can buy the lot. Woolen caps and gloves and mitts and lots of hats with fur pom-poms (which is quite the rage right now) were all over the place. I merely window-shopped, but it was fun to be a part of it all and to see the amount of variety of items being sold.

Dinner with Livia at Le Bistro Marboeuf:

Livia in the step-daughter of my French friend Genevieve whom I had seen last week in Lyon. I have known Livia for many years and we always make plans to meet when I am in Paris. Livia had suggested we meet at Rue Marbeouf and I set out to find her. We met on schedule and at her suggestion, we made ourselves comfortable at a very typically Parisian bistro called Le Bistro Marboeuf. I welcomed the opportunity to have a companion for dinner–one of the downsides about being alone in Paris is that I rarely enter good eateries to have a complete meal as I have never fancied dining alone.

With Livia for company, I ordered a full three-course meal: I started with the foie gras (which was just superb) served with toast points, went on to steak-frites served with a three-pepper sauce and I finished with Iles Flottants, which is such a delicate dessert and so rarely found on American menus—it was swimming in a sea of custard and was studded with toasted nuts and drizzled over with a caramel sauce. It was quite the best iles flottants I have ever eaten and even Livia was astonished at the size of my helping. Since I had asked for sautéed vegetables instead of frites, I ended up getting both! Livis had the French onion soup that she pronounced to be simply superb and a Lyonnaise casserole of meat rolls. My dessert was so large that I urged her to share it with me. It wasd a simply delightful meal—although I would have preferred to have my steak (ordered medium rare) done better. I am discovering that it is best to ask for a well-done steak in France. As French gastronomy goes, this was up there.

Back Home:

Livia and I parted company at about 8.00 pm after having had a lovely evening together and catching up on all sorts of personal and family news. We took a few pictures together on the Champs-Elysses and then I headed home and went straight to bed at about 10.00 pm after what had been another very fruitful day.

A demain…


T’Was All About Impressionism…Macarons…and Crepes.

December 6, 2016, Tuesday: Paris

Today was all About Impressionism…Macarons and Crepes

I awoke at 6.00 am (yes, to the sound of the tram bell). I showered and fixed myself a smoked salmon baguette with salad which I would carry for lunch and ate pain de chocolat for brekkie. By the time I left my place it was 9.45. I arrived at my destination, the Musee d’Orsay, at 10.30 am. Having been here several times, I did not expect to stay beyond noon.

Exploring the Musee D’Orsay:

I could not have been more delusional. The Musee d’Orsay is so huge and so crammed with artistic wonders that it deserves a whole day devoted to its exploration. As it turned out, I began my examination of its masterpieces quite systematically, on the ground floor, as I took in its sculptural treasures—Rodin, Carpeaux, mixed media African busts by Cordier (which I adore) before I made my way to the end of the hall only to find a special section devoted to the Opera Garnier and the artistic genius of Charles Garnier! Now what are the odds that I would have visited it only the previous day? Had I not taken the tour, I would have just skirted through this exhibition. As it turned out, I gave the section a great deal of time and attention and was completely taken by the model of Paris featuring the Opera building built on scale beneath our feet and protected by a glass floor. There was also a brilliant cross-section of the entire building that gave glimpses of the kind of décor that had fascinated me yesterday. You could see a miniature version in this model of the original ceiling rondel as it had existed before Chagall presented his Modernist one.

I made my way by elevator then to the top-most floor and decided to head downwards via the stairs. At the top, I came upon the huge clock that acted as the clock of the Gare d’Orsay (when it used to a major railway station). The manner in which this building has been repurposed to house the national Impressionist collection is simply stunning and no matter how often I come here, I still remain awed. Through the clock’s hands, one can see the city of Paris spread out with the church of Sacre-Coeur at Montmartre clearly visible in the distance. As I moved inside, I found the balcony (which is open only in the summer) which offers incredible views of the Seine and the buildings on its banks including the Louvre. Of course, once my viewing of the paintings began, there was no stopping my camera. I clicked incessantly—from Whistler’s Mother to Manet’s Flautist and Odalisque, from landscapes and snowscapes by Sisley and Pisarro to Monet’s Poppies, Ladies with a Parasol and his Waterlilies, from Renoir’s portrait of a very young Monet to his portrait of Berthe Morrisot and his twin paintings of City and Country Dancing, from Cezanne’s mountain views and Card Players to a few by Rousseau—all the Masters were there, vying for attention. I went past the Café Campagna and made my way to the lower floor where the grandeur of the Impressionists continued. I took some more pictures of works by Van Gogh, Seurat and Cezanne and then eventually, with my tummy rumbling and my feet begging for a rest, I went into a small café and ordered a sandwich. I did have my own in my bag but I simply could not find the space to sit down and eat my own lunch. The sandwich I bought was eaten at a stand-up counter but it gave me the rest I needed.

During the second half of my tour of the museum, I focused on the lowest level and as I wound my way in and out of the galleries, I saw works by Bonnard, Courbet and even Modernists like Picasso. The lower level presents a mixed bag—there are gigantic works and there are very small canvasses. I was fairly drooping with fatigue by the time I finished looking at every painting, but as I was keen to see Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe and could not find it in its regular position, I asked a guard where it could be. He told me that it had been moved temporarily into the special exhibition on the ‘Second Empire’. So off I went to the opposite side of the lowest level and there I gave myself up to the thrill of seeing all sorts of 19th century items–from letters and sculpture to paintings and decorative objects: some of which were so stunning that they took my breathe clean away. Finally, in the last gallery, I did see the Manet masterpiece I had been seeking and when I had taken a good close look at it (for the nth time), I decided to get a move on—as I was really really tired. So, in the end, by the time I left the Musee d’Orsay, it was 4.00 pm!

Off to Pierre Herme for Macarons:

When I had last lived in Paris, four years ago, I had indulged in a great deal of gastronomic treats from artisanal bread from Eric Kayser and cheese from Barthelemy…but one thing I hadn’t quite managed to taste were the incredible macarons made by the inventor of them himself—Pierre Herme. This time I was determined not to leave Paris without sourcing, finding and feasting on them. I had used the internet to find out that one of his extraordinary patisseries is near St. Suplice Chruch and that was where I took the metro in search of it. I found it soon enough and when I went inside, I saw that he had a special Christmas range based on foie gras. It was not long before I bought a box of macarons—7 come in a long box—plus a special one made with truffles (that comes in its own special packet). I was pleased to take them home and enjoy each one separately. I also bought two of his croissants—one being his signature IsfahanL a combination of rose, raspberry and lychee (flavors that had resulted in the creation of his famous pastry called the Ispahan)—well, this was the croissant equivalent. I also bought his Croissant Poire William, filled with a pear puree and studded with candied pears. Breakfast for the next couple of days was sorted! And would be special!           

Crepes for Dinner in Little Brittany:

Also on my list of Must-Do Items before leaving Paris was eating crepes—and since Lonely Planet had extolled the virtues of a place called Chez Josephine in Little Brittany, off I went to find it. It was practically in the shadow of Tour Montparnasse. It had turned dark by the time I reached there…and guess what??? It was closed on Tuesdays!!! Duh Me! Well, I had no choice but to look for an alternative place and I found it at Creperie Bretonne. There, I settled down in an empty creperie, after I inquired and found out that it was not too early for me to be served dinner at 5.00 pm. I chose to each a Crepe Rennes which was filled with ham, Swiss cheese and mushrooms—and it was scrumptious! I savored it with a large decaff café au lait and feeling very pleased with my very early dinner, I made my way out about an hour later.

Home to Relax:

Fairly falling with fatigue, I made my way back home on the metro and reached at 6. 30 pm. I sat propped up in bed and caught up with email and the world’s news and facetimed with Llew. Then, at about 9.00 pm, I ate a smoked salmon salad that I made with my greens, smoked salmon, blue cheese and nuts—douzed with salad dressing. When I felt ready for bed, I brushed and flossed my teeth and turned out the light.

A demain!  

Two Items Ticked Off a Parisian To-Do List: Opera Garnier and Cafe Angelina

December 5, 2016, Monday:

Two Major Parisian Items Ticked off To-Do List—Opera Garnier and Café Angelina for Hot Chocolate           

Within a couple of days of being in Paris again, I felt as if I had never left. The ease with which I hopped in and out of trains, the fluency with which I spoke French with never a bit of hesitation, the confidence with which I sought out shops I wished to visit (often for the first time) and the determination with which I ticked off items on my Parisian To-Do List astounded even me.

Best of all was the daily waking to the sound of the tram bell outside my window on Boulevarde Jourdan which filled me with nostalgia for the summer when I used to live in the apartment next-door. When I drew my curtains back, I gasped for at 8.00 am, Paris was still pitch dark. In another hour, however, things had changed completely and by 9.00am, daylight had flooded the area, Parc Montsourris across the street had opened for the day, dog-walkers and joggers had begun taking their daily constitutionals and the day got on. I promised myself that I would ride the tram at least once and take a stroll around Parc Montsourris at least once before I left. And in this way, although I began to whittle my To-Do List down, I also constantly added to it.

I decided to shower in the morning before I left (as there was no hurry to start my day), folded my laundry, scoured websites to find out where to go and how to get there and grabbing two pain au chocolat from my stash, I left my place at 9.45 by the RER (B) and the metro to get to the Opera Garnier. Although I have loved this building for ages, I have never visited its interior—this was the day I would take a tour.

Exploring the Opera Garnier:

I arrived at the main entrance of the beautiful Opera Garnier building through the metro station called Opera—this brings you right to the junction where the Opera building meets other swanky streets. I spied Rue du Scribe and immediately decided that I would go to Fragonard, the French perfumier, to buy more goodies as gifts for London friends, right after my tour.

Inside, at the Box Office, they honored my Met ID card but I did pay 5 euros for a self-guided tour (which was simply brilliant) as I was unable to get a guided tour (one has to book in advance and pay 15 euros for it).

The Opera Garnier was Paris’ original Opera House (it is no longer in use for operas as there is a new one at the Bastille). It was built in the late 19th century by Charles Garnier—after whom it is named—who was Paris’ best-known architect. He knew he was getting a grand commission when named architect and he poured his greatest talent and vision into the enterprise. I consider his work on this building equivalent to the building of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672.

The moment you enter this building, you stagger in disbelief, for it is so visually spectacular as to leave you speechless. Garnier spared absolutely no expense in creating this magnificent building. You start your tour in a circular Rotunda that has arched entrances and a grand stuccoed ceiling. It leads you into a vestibule that is noted for a very delicate sculpture of a lovely woman. Both sides of the vestibule are lined with floor to ceiling mirrors which can be very deceptive. You think that there are rooms beyond and then you realize that you are looking at yourself in the mirror—I must admit I got a bit of a shock when I realized that the reflection looking back at me was my own!

From this point, the grand sweeping marble staircase branches out into two sides and takes you to another stupendous landing where the interior structure becomes even more ornate. There are marble balconies emanating from both sides, there are loads of delicate sculpture, there are candleabras held in the hands of clusters of bronze nymphs. The ceilings are painted in the style of the ceilings of French castles and palaces. After you climb another set of stairs, you arrive at yet another landing where the sight of two caryatids catch your attention. They are created out of mixed media—bronze body parts, marble clothing.  Needless to say, visitors can be heard gasping audibly and cameras do not cease clicking. When you position yourself in-between the caryatids, you get sterling views of the higher levels of the building that seem to open up with such a wealth of decorative detail that it beggars description.

When you pass through the doorway flanked by the caryatids, you find yourself facing a door that leads to the Main Auditorium. Plush with red velvet seats and a horseshoe-shaped structure, it is similar to London’s Royal Albert Hall. The most interesting aspect is the ceiling which was once painted by a contemporary of Garnier but was repainted in 1964 by the Russian artist Marc Chagall. Not an inch of the auditorium is left undecorated. In the center is the notorious chandelier that plays such a big role in the opera, The Phantom of the Opera. In fact, there is a reference to the Phantom during the audio tour and visitors are directed to Box Number 5 at the end of the corridor where the Phantom (the ghost of the opera house) was known to lurk.

There are many marble busts of opera composers encircling the outside of the auditorium and prominent among these is one of Berlioz who was extremely popular in the time of Garnier. From this point on, the audio guide took me to parts of the building that were simply stacked with visual details—mosaics on the ceiling, paintings on the wall, sculpture every which way you turned. I entered a lovely circular Hall that was used during the intermissions for the devouring of ice-cream (I realize now where the tradition of selling ice-cream in the London theaters originates). This Hall is filled with beautiful panel paintings that depict the consumption of different kinds of food and drink. You then pass through a Solar Room—on the opposite side is a Lunar Room. At the very top, you get a sweeping view of the horseshoe-shaped staircase in its multiple levels until you get to the piece de resistance, the Hall of Mirrors.

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palais Garnier was created in imitation of the one to be found at the Palais de Versailles. Visitors are simply overwhelmed by what they see: ceilings and walls are covered with paintings in the Baroque style with classical gods and goddesses attended to by a multitude of heavenly beings, huge blazing chandeliers hang low from the ceiling, gilded sculpted rondels on the walls and ceiling, parquet flooring, Greek-style figures holding up giant clocks. After you have seen this gallery, everything else pales into insignificance.

There are, however, still many more rooms to be seen: the museum of fine arts, for instance, is filled with paintings depicting the opera house, opera stars through the ages and composers of various vintage. In the main entrance lobby, there are four marble sculptures of well-known opera composers. By this point in the tour, you are visually exhausted. However, the tour then takes you to the extensive gift shops where there is everything to purchase that your heart could desire.

It was about 12 noon when I emerged from the Opera Garnier, having undertaken one of the more stupendous visits of my travels. It was one of the best things I have seen in Paris. Although the place is used today for ballet and other dance performance, I would urge anyone going to Paris for the first time, not to miss a visit to the Opera Garnier. Not a moment inside it is ever wasted.

Off to Fragonard:

            Fragonard was just across the road in the Musee de Parfums. First-time visitors can take a guided tour of the grand hotel particulier (private mansion) that has been taken over by the company to showcase its involvement in the perfume industry. I had taken the tour on a previous visit to Paris—and so I went directly to the show room to buy myself some more soaps (I adore their flower-scented set of five) and sets of perfume. Was delighted to find sets that also featured a gold bracelet. I bought a couple and left.

In Search of Lunch at Frenchie:

By this point, I thought I ought to look for lunch and using Lonely Planet, I went in search of Frenchie—a small bistro, they said, with really good food. It was simplicity itself for me to use the public transport system as I possess a Navigo card (equivalent of London’s Oyster Card)—all I needed to do was top it up for a week of unlimited travel. As it turned out, it was a waste in my case and Paris happened to be riddled by pollution (because of unexpected changes in the atmosphere) and in an attempt to keep people off the streets, the public transport system was offered free of charge to all commuters for three consecutive days—so my pass for a week turned out to be a rather expensive buy. The 3-day free concession brought a bunch of beggars into the metro system and for the next couple of days, one was plagued by them as they got off the streets and on to the trains.

When I got to Frenchie, however, I found it closed for lunch on Mondays. However, on taking a look at its menu, I found it to be stacked with American fast-food type offerings such as hamburgers, corned beef Reuben sandwiches and pancakes that were quite unappealing to me. Everything was also frightfully expensive. I, therefore, walked out (the space was tiny  and there was no room at all), and found a Subway shop from where I bought a Sub Raclette—made with typically French-Swiss cheese such as Emmentaler. Having eaten it, I continued with my touring for the day.

Off to the Church of Madeleine:

I got back on the metro and arrived again at Opera and walked a couple of blocks around the square that surrounds the church of Madeleine in order to indulge in some degustation—the French art of tasting food. Although the famous Fauchon was open and offered the pleasure of tasting a few teas and a couple of other nibbles, Hediard, another temple to gastronomy was closed temporarily for long-term renovation. A notice on the door advised patrons to buy their supplies online. I also then made my way to the Pinoteque—a theater that showcased avant garde movies and theatrical offerings, but, to my amazement, it had closed down sometime last year and nothing has taken its place.

Making my way to the main entrance of the Church, I entered its hushed dark interior and walked towards the front to spend a few minutes in quiet prayer. Built in extreme classical style—a simple cube surrounded by Corinthian columns and topped with a carved pediment featuring Christ in the Heavens—it is quite a commanding presence.

Looking for the Jeu de Paume and the ‘Ring Trick’:

My next port of call was the Museum known as the Jeu de Paume which, before the conversion of the Gare d’Orsay into the Musee d’Orsay, i.e. about 35 years ago, used to hold the country’s collection of Impressionist paintings. Since then, it has been used to hold exhibitions of photography and since I had never been inside, I decided to pop in.

However, as I was walking on the Rue Royale, past all the showrooms containing French decorative arts (such as Lalique, Christofle and Daum), I was almost taken in by what is called the ‘ring trick’. A woman just ahead of me bent down and picked up a gold ring. She offered it to me and said that her religion that she told me was Presbyterian, did not allow her to keep it. I took a look at it and saw that it was unlikely to be real gold. But inside there were hallmarks! I told her that I did not want it and that she could hand it over to the police. She then asked me for a few euros as it was her lucky day! I almost put my hands into my bag to give her a few when I realized that the whole thing was a set-up about which I had actually been warned by Lonely Planet. In fact, I was annoyed at myself for almost getting taken in by it. As she waited to get a few euro coins from me, I told her that I was not happy about tricked in this fashion and walked right away.

When, a few minutes later, I did get to the Jeu de Paume, alas, it is closed on Mondays—which made my visit futile.

Hot Chocolate and Afternoon Tea at Café Angelina:

I walked briskly along Rude de Rivoli in search of Café Angelina which supposedly serves the best hot chocolate in Paris. In the past, I have tried the teas at Laudree, another salle de the of exceeding fame and popularity in Paris. But my friend Delyse had told me about Café Angelina and I decided to check it out this time round. Its hot chocolate is so decadent that they actually serve it with a little pot of whipped cream at the side.            

             I found Café Angelina to be a tea room in the grand French style—dripping with dazzling chandeliers and lined by marble paneling. There were little round marble tables and I was seated at one on a round chair into which I sank. When I looked at the menu, I discovered that Hot Chocolate and a pastry would cost me only a few euros less than the full Afternoon Tea which included sandwiches and a selection of pastries and cakes in addition to the hot chocolate for 20 euros. My initial unease at being alone in the establishment was soon dispelled by the fact that I noticed so many single women sipping tea or hot cholate alone and tucking into the pastry—so what I had attempted to do was far from unusual.

My Afternoon Tea arrived on a two-tiered stand with savories on one level (finger sandwiches composed of chicken salad, ham and cheese and smoked salmon) as well as a cheese scone and a top level that contained a raspberry pastry, a lemon macaron, a madeleine (how can you have tea in France without a macaron and a madeleine, right?) and a small Mont Blanc which is a pastry that was created at Café Angelina. It is a chocolate-based pastry, topped with a chestnut flavored cream frosting and filled with chocolate ganache and whipped cream. You can order a single one (which is much larger) or this miniature version which offers you a sampling of it as well as other pastries. As for the hot chocolate? Was it as good as promised? Well, let’s just say it was terrific and I would gladly have had at least another cup.

It was while I was seated at Café Angelina and using their wifi to check messages on my phone that I received the shock of my life. Our NYU-London site director, a fine colleague and a good friend of mine, had passed away after a brief illness. I found myself reeling with a sense of sudden bereavement. How was it possible that someone so vibrant and so dynamic could just fade away? Only two weeks previously, he had played such a big role in the presentation I had made to NYU faculty members and staff in London. And now he was gone. Just like that. I found it hard to contain my grief.

Towards the end of my long stay at Café Angelina (where I did not feel in the slightest hurried), a young couple of Indian heritage occupied the table next to me. We entered into conversation and I soon discovered that they were from Long Island! For the next half hour, we chatted until I felt rested enough and decided to leave.

Darkness had fallen over the city although it was still pretty early in the evening. Had I more energy, I would have stayed outdoors and nipped off to another venue. But I was dead tired and the sad news had robbed me of a good mood. I was ready to call it a night. So I took the metro home, reached at 7. 30 pm and got ready for bed where I checked email. My late full tea did not require me to eat dinner. I was, therefore, off to sleep by 9.00 pm.

A demain…


Free Sunday Rolls Around Again in Paris

December 4, 2016, Sunday:

Free Sunday Rolls Around Again in Paris.

One of the great advantages of being in Paris on the first Sunday of each month is that you get to enter a lot of the museums and monuments for free. Most folks make a bee-line for the better-known ones such as the Louvre or the Musee d’Orsay. But, having seen those several times before and being pretty certain that my Met ID card would get me into those for free, I chose to go to places I had never visited—and so after much research on the net, I zeroed in on four places to see—if I could muster the stamina and the endurance to see them all.

Off to the Cathedral of Notre Dame:

After carrying two pain au chocolate for breakfast, at 9.00 am, I used my carnet of 10 metro tickets and hopped on to the RER (B) from Cite-Universitaire to get to St. Michel. From there, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is just across the street. My idea was to get to the Cathedral for the 9. 30 am Lauds service which was quite well attended by locals and a number of tourists. It lasted 30 minutes and at 10.00 am, I joined the line at the side of the Cathedral for free entry onto the spiral staircase that leads to the twin towers. I had never been up there (although I have visited and attended services in the Cathedral pretty often), and was rewarded with an absolutely fabulous day—clear and sunny (although freezing cold). This would ensure really spectacular pictures of Paris seen from a height.

Climbing to the Towers of Notre-Dame:

Having reached the line at 10.00am, I was shocked to find that there were at least 300 people in the line before me. So although the entry door opened at 10.00 am sharp, by the time I entered, I had waited in the line for one hour and 10 minutes. And the wait was brutal because the temperature was unseasonably low. Although I was very warmly clad, after about half an hour in the line, I started to freeze and actually had to enter one of the souvenir stores to warm myself.

In the end, however, the wait was fully worthwhile, for the bird’s-eye views of the city from the towers are hard to describe in words. Baron Hausmann’s glorious city was basking in the winter sun in its lovely ivory shade of Caen stone punctuated only occasionally by a recognizable spire of a church or a landmark building that was easy to recognize. I took so many pictures of the buildings and of the Seine and its bridges snaking around the city. However, it was not just the city that lay as if showing itself off at its dazzling best and waiting to be photographed, that caught my eye; it was the umpteen architectural features by which I was surrounded that had me completely enthralled. The famous gargoyles, for instance, created through the genius of Violet Le Duc, can be seen up close and personal. Great ugly stone animals and birds (such as eagle-like griffons) that are unrecognizable form the Gothic water spouts through which rain water is ingeniously siphoned down the building. There are statues of saints and a number of angels in prayer that would be impossible to see from ground level. The huge bells of the Cathedral are so close when you are up in the towers that to hear them peeling is to jump out of your skin. As I stood there taking photographs, I simply could not help thinking how worthwhile it was to have climbed 450 steps to get to the top. In fact, after one has circumnavigated one level of the tower, there is another flight of stairs to climb to get even higher. It was rather grudgingly that I climbed those, but from up there too the views that came into focus were sublime—the Eiffel Tower, the heights of Montmartre with the Church of Sacre-Coeur crowning it, the funky design of the Centre Pompidour designed by the Italian Renzo Piano, the confection that is the Opera Garnier designed by the one and only Charles Garnier, the dissimilar spires of the Church of St. Suplice, the ugliest tower in Paris (Tour Montparnasse), the Pantheon with its serene dome and the exuberant golden Dome Church at Les Invalids. I have to admit that I had a field day and was absolutely thrilled with my decision to get to the top as it was my first time—and probably my last (although never say never!). I seriously cannot see myself being able to repeat the feat of scaling 450 steps—and so I was also delighted that I had the perfect day on which to click my pictures.

Back on Terra Firma:

By 12 noon, I was back on terra firma and dying for some hot chocolate as I was unbelievably cold. As I walked along the back street, past the many souvenir stores that have sprouted on the streets leading from the Cathedral to the Seine, I arrived at Rue du Renard where I found a McDs! It was with such relief that I went inside to order a hot chocolate with whipped cream and gave my feet a well-earned rest. But then, not wanting to waste too much time on free Sunday, I hastened away to the next item on my agenda, past the legendary department store called BHV (and from where we once bought the best can-opener in the world!) to arrive at the Musee Picasso—the next item on my list.

Visiting the Musee Picasso:

About 30 years ago, on my first visit to Europe, I had received my first introduction to the world of the legendary Pablo Picasso in this museum. I can still remember seeing the giant painting of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon at the entrance and being stunned. I can recall walking in reverence from room to room as I reviewed Picasso’s work from phase to phase in his life. Marvelous curatorial notes in each gallery introduced the many influences in his life, the many women who crowded it and became subjects of his work, the many places in which he lived and found inspiration, the many experiments he conducted with form and color as he traced a trajectory that took him from realism during his early years in Barcelona to the varied ‘color’ phases—his Blue phase, his Rose Phase–his experiments with Cubism, his imitations of the work of the Masters  (his obsession with Velasquez, for instance, that resulted in the endless variations he created of Las Meninas). I had seen them all and understood with exceeding clarity, very early in my life, what Picasso had attempted to do and why he is regarded as perhaps the greatest artistic genius of the 20th century.

When I lived in Paris, four years ago, the Musee Picasso, which is located in a lovely hotel particulier (private manor) in the city on the Rue de Thorigny, was under renovation. They were going to re-structure it so that it would cease to be chronological and would only display some of his masterpieces at a time and often in conjunction with the work of other contemporary artists. Thus, when I arrived at the venue at about 1.00 pm, I found about 75 people in the line before me.  However, the line (unlike the one at Notre-Dame) moved speedily and I was inside in about 20 minutes.

Exploring the Musee Picasso:

This time, to my utter disappointment, I found that the museum had completely changed its display style and I am afraid I was neither impressed nor delighted. The early work was present but then the work transitioned too suddenly and with barely an adequate explanation from one gallery to the next. Also, this time the exhibition featured the work of Picasso and Giacometti, the sculptor who also made Paris his home. I surveyed the comparative exhibits very carefully and enjoyed it, undoubtedly…but my enjoyment and enlightenment were not nearly as profound as they had been 30 years ago. Still, I am glad I re-visited this museum and I would say that to anyone who has not been to it, a trip to Paris ought to include this museum.

Off to the Fondation Cartier:

Next on my agenda was a visit to the Fondation Cartier—which, as its name implies, was created under the patronage of the famed French jewelry house. My interest in seeing the place was to view the architectural genius of the great Jean Nouvel whose work I have seen in various parts of the world (the Opera House in Lyon, the Musee de Quai Blanchi in Paris, a Tower in Barcelona, etc). He is an architect with a non-conventional vision. He introduced the concept of blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces, of creating hanging gardens that scale a whole wall, of using glass walls to block out traffic sounds, etc. So off I went to the Rue Raspail by metro to get to the museum—not really knowing what to expect inside.

To my surprise, a rather weird exhibition themed around ‘The Orchestra of Animals’ was in full swing. It had attracted a great deal of children (it was, after all, a Sunday) and was portrayed through multi-media. There were movies, film clips, paintings and, downstairs, in the basement, some more rather strange films. The exhibition wasn’t really my cup of tea at all, but I have to say that Novel’s building is striking. There is a lot of glass (his signature touch), miles of what look like pipes and loud primary colors everywhere. I did not spend too much time here and within the hour, I was out.

Off to the Arc de Triomphe:

Nightfall was not too far off by the time I emerged from the Fondation Cartier and out on the street. I took the metro again and made my way across the Seine on the 6 line which runs aloft and overground for most of its route. When you cross the Seine on the 6, you get glorious pictures of the Eiffel Tower and by day or night, it is compelling. My destination was the Champs-Elysses as I was headed to the Arc de Triomphe to climb it for the first time—also for free. I dreaded to think of how long the line would be, as it had been a long day and I was fatigued. But I pressed on and I arrived at my venue at about 5.00 pm when it had already become pretty dark.

A Word about the Champs-Elysses:

When I emerged from the metro station, I was stunned. The Champs-Elysses, the main artery that radiates from the Place de L’Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe, which some folks believe to be the most stylish of Paris’ avenues and certainly the one most used for public parades, was ablaze with Christmas color. It is indeed such a great time to be in Paris. The city is wearing its holiday best. There are lights everywhere. The stores are simply glittering with eye-candy of every sort. The jewel in the crown, however, is the Cartier building which was covered with red lights and wrapped in a dazzling bright red bow with the Cartier logo, the panther, also picked up in lights at the top of the building. I would have liked to have lingered longer on this lovely avenue, but I did not want to have too long a wait to get to the top of the Arc and hurried along.

Climbing the Arc de Triomphe:

There were about 250 people in the line ahead of me when I reached the Arc de Triomphe which looked gorgeous in the reflected aura of so many holiday lights. The line also moved quickly and in an organized fashion and, in no time at all, I was at the top taking in the beauty of the city as picked out in its lights. This time I had climbed 250 steps—you can just imagine how heroic I felt after having climbed 450 steps in the morning! I do not believe that I will ever be capable of accomplishing this again. The climb to the Arc was also the first time ever that I would be undertaking it—and so I was excited.

All the way to the top of the Arc, there are exhibits—trivia and other facts that can keep the visitor occupied. Once at the top, you circumnavigate the viewing platform to take in the sights. I deliberately decided to see the views of Paris from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame by day and then to see the same sights by night from the Arc de Triomphe as I was sure that illuminations would portray the city in a completely different light (pun unintended!). Needless to say, I caught the Eiffel Tower ablaze at the 6.00 pm hour and that was a thrill in itself. I went through the process, all over again, of taking dozens of pictures and was particularly taken by the Champs-Elysses itself with its holiday decorations and its giant Ferris wheel at one end (close to the Place de la Concorde). By the time I descended all those steps again and came down to ground level, I found out that the daily ceremony of the Changing of the Guard that takes place around the immortal flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier, was in full swing. It was quite moving to see the simple pageantry with which these rituals are observed. It involved reading from a text, the hoisting and carrying of the bleu, blanc, rouge, the blowing of bugles and the singing of the national anthem, La Marseillaise. Again, I took many pictures and thought to myself how wonderful it was that I was having all these varied experienced on a single day.

By this time, as you can understand, I was quite drooping with fatigue and decided that I needed to get straight back home. However, I was hungry and needed something more substantial than a salad—so I hopped into a McDs to get myself a Croque Monsieur which is a toasted ham and cheese sandwich—I got a takeaway and was soon on the train arriving at my room at 9.00 pm. I was exhausted and after eating it with a salad, I showered and did not waste any time in going straight off to sleep.

Free Sunday in Paris had been a resounding success!

A demain!      

Loafing Around the Loire Valley

December 3, 2016, Saturday:

Loafing Around the Loire Valley

Since Llew needed to be at Charles de Gaulle airport at 7.00 am for his 10.00 am return flight to the US, he left our place at Cite Universitaire at 6.00 am. I decided to wake up and leave with him and spend the day in the Loire Valley using the Rail Europe pass I had that was valid for one more day. I did not know what to expect in terms of my rail journey. Our previous attempt to get to the Loire Valley via a train from Gare Austerlitz to Orleans had been a failure. This time I did some research on the internet and discovered that I could take a train from Gare Montparnasse to Tours—which was another way to get to the Loire Valley.

Accordingly, I paid the 9 euro supplement to use the TGV train from Paris to Tours and boarded one at 7.11 am. I got off at St. Pierre de Corps where I had a one hour wait in a tiny one-horse town that offered absolutely no interest on a fairly wet day. While waiting for a connecting train to Blois, I bought myself a coffee and a croissant and had breakfast in the bar attached to the station. It gave me free use of the SNCF’s internet network and enabled me to read up on the places I would be covering that day. I was back on a train at 9. 27 am and arrived in Blois 20 minutes later. I took advice from the staff at the station on how to get to Blois Castle and on being told that it was merely a ten-minute walk away, I strode forward.


What Makes the Loire Valley of Interest?

The Loire Valley grew into one of the most affluent parts of France from the 14th century onwards when aristocrats began to build themselves extensive homes that came to be called ‘Chateaux’ (castles) in the vicinity of the river Loire. Within a century, most of the country’s most prominent families had a country estate that bordered extensive inherited lands that were used for hunting, shooting and other such pass-times. These chateaux are museums today stacked with architectural interest, interior decorative details and furniture and accoutrements fit for kings. Many of them can boast extensive landscaped gardens that are still beautifully maintained and come into their own in the summer.

Visitors could spend as long as three weeks in the Loire Valley and not see all the chateaux. Most visitors spent 3-4 days and see a couple of chateaux a day. Each of them offers two or three highlights that make them different from the other. I did not have the luxury of spending quite that long in the Valley—nor did I believe that I would be able to spend more than one day taking in tours of interiors. Hence, I made the decision to spend one day there and to see two chateaux as conveniently as I could without the advantage of a car or other form of personal transport. Considering that I relied only on public transport, I did not do too badly at all, for I found out from the Tourist Office, once I got to Blois Castle, that I could easily see the whole place at leisure, then return to the town square to take a bus at 12. 30 that would take me to the next castle, Chambord, that was not too far away at all. At 5. 15 pm, there was a bus outside Chambord that would take me directly back to Blois for my return train to Paris.  I could not have been happier. It seemed that despite my apprehension, I would be able to cover two castles quite conveniently that day.


Exploring Blois Castle:

You enter Blois castle through a grand Gothic archway that is crowned with an equestrian statue of King Louis (who became St. Louis). I was also happy because they accepted my Met ID card at Blois—so all I had to pay for was the audio guide (4 euros). I gave myself about two and a half hours to see it—and off I went.

The castle of Blois was home to six kings and countless aristocratic visitors through a couple of centuries. As soon as you enter the central courtyard, you are struck by the fact that it has four distinct architectural styles: Gothic (13th century), Flamboyant Gothic (1498-1503), Early Renaissance (1515-24) and Classical (1630s)—based on the fact that different rulers had occupied it and had differing tastes. The most striking architectural feature is a spiral stone staircase that leads from one floor to the next. After I took pictures of the courtyard, I began my ascent up the stairs.

Inside, the castle took me a bit by surprise. I suppose I expected something more in the Baroque vein—as in the Louvre or Fontainbleu. Instead, I found that it was completely redesigned by Felix Durban in the 19th century who decided to make an empty castle a receptacle of 16th century decorative artistry. Thus, you will pass by pillared arches decorated with gilded paint, stained glass windows and stone motifs that sport the salamander—the logo of Francois I who spent a great deal of time here. On the ground floor, I went briskly through a museum devoted to stone sculpture that was salvaged from the castle. On the second floor, you pass through bedrooms that are well-refurbished. They contain Renaissance furniture, paintings and objets d’art. The salamander as a motif appears on mantelpieces of the many fireplaces scattered about the castle. The walls are thickly painted to resemble wall paper in close geometric designs that imitate the interior of Italian pallazos. The floors are formed of ceramic tile in elaborate designs and colors. There is a Long Gallery with a number of kingly portraits. One of the rooms that I found most unusual and interesting was one containing 237 wooden panels that are painted in such a way as to imitate 16th century leather tooling as found on book-bindings. The room was said to have been occupied by Catherine de Medici, mother of King Henry III, who is rumored to have hidden poison in the skirting boards to be taken in case of her capture. She died in the room in 1589, a few days after the most notorious murders took place in the castle (those compartments today hold Renaissance knick-knacks.).

The story of the murders are to be found in a room devoted to the gruesome murder of the Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine by Henry III. Their deaths were avenged a year later when a monk assassinated the King himself. The story is depicted in large and very realistic paintings that left me spellbound as there is very little I know about French Renaissance history. As you walk through one bedroom after the other, you marvel at little details: a painting of a hirsuit young child who suffered from an illness that produces hair all over the face is of special interest. The beds are pretty interesting themselves—if you peer under their drapery, you will see paintings on the inside of their canopies. Finally, if you have the energy, you can spend a whole afternoon studying the various paintings in the extensive museum of fine arts which is also a part of the castle. I was not only tired by this point but found my sense of aesthetics saturated by an overdose of splendor. Thus, I merely marched through the museum and took in carefully just a couple of paintings by Rembrandt. Blois offers a lovely platform with a parapet that provides a lookout point for a panoramic view of the city and the river Loire upon whose banks it has been built. From the platform, I nipped into the chapel—which is quite small and plain but for its stained glass windows–but it was once the center of all religious activity.


Off to Chambord:

Following instructions, I arrived at the bus stop at 12. 15 for my 12.30 bus to Chambord. It arrived on the dot and for 3 euros (paid to the driver) ferried me to Chambord. Often when one travels, it is the least exciting elements of one’s journey that provide the greatest interest—this was certainly the case here as the 20 minute bus journey took me into the tiniest, quietest villages filled with small cottages that I adored. When we did arrive at Chambord, we drove along an allee of trees (similar to the castle of Vaux le Viscount) near Paris that I had visited four years ago.

Exploring Chambord:

Chambord is gigantic—it is probably the largest of the castles in the Loire Valley. A part of it was under scaffolding as renovation on so huge a place is constantly on-going. If you can believe this, this humongous place was the “hunting lodge” of King Francois I—he of the salamander motif.  It’s owner’s motive in building it was to outshine the buildings of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who was known as the greatest builder in the universe. There are more than 440 room and 85 staircases—and only a fraction of these are open to the public on the self-guided tour.

Here, too, I was permitted to enter sans entry fee as I had my Met ID card. However, I did rent an audio guide for 5 euros that hardly worked at all. It was governed by a sensor which was most insensitive. The end result was that I missed out on a lot of details.

The first thing that strikes the visitor at Chambord is the double-helix staircase that is said to have been designed by the great Leonardo da Vinci who died in 1516 in nearby Amboise castle. The ingenuity of the design lies in the fact that although one climber might occasionally pass someone going in the opposite direction, they will never be able to see each other despite the existence of windows cut into the staircase. On each floor, there are a multitude of rooms to be explored and I grew deeply fatigued as I tried to see them all. Some rooms are practically empty, others are full and the level of grandeur in each one is different. Furthermore, the castle was simply freezing (even before the onset of winter) which explains why the Marquis of Poland who was offered refuge here from his enemies, did not stay very long! The few fireplaces had fires going—and they were very welcome too as visitors stopped to warm their frozen fingers at the embers. Some of the more striking rooms here was the Hunting Trophy Room hung with gorgeous paintings of wild life and surrounded by vitrines filled with stuffed animals and birds. The Chapel was also a large, double-storied room, rather stark in decoration, but pretty piously atmospheric. Chambord had marvelous wrap-around balconies that connected the various wings and bedrooms that were quite spectacularly furnished. One of its star attraction is the rooftop, which you reach through a winding staircase, up several tiring floor, to arrive at a sheer confection of domes, cupolas, pillars, arched doorways, etc. all decorated thickly in Gothic stone tracery. There is a bell lantern or cupola which is also very visually interesting. You can visit the kitchens on the ground floor, if you have the time and energy. Chambord also has massive gardens that are all landscaped in the formal Italianate style—but in the autumn, there is not much to do except walk in them for exercise. As for me, I was so tired by this point that I could barely muster the energy to take a look at the adjoining church which was, perhaps fortunately, closed. I browsed about some of the shops at the entrance before I caught the 5. 15 pm bus back to Blois station (passing once again the pretty village vignettes of the morning) and arrived on the 6.02 train back to Paris about an hour later.

The Loire Valley had been a revelation and I was absolutely thrilled as it ticked one more item off my Bucket List—I had been desirous of seeing this region forever.


Grocery Shopping in Paris:

I badly needed groceries for the week, so although I was ready to drop, I soldiered on to a small Monoprix for basic items. I bought a bag of chocolate brioche for breakfast, a bag of salad, a bottle of cream dressing, a packet of smoked salmon, a round of blue cheese and a baguette. With these basic food items, I would have enough to eat for days—because I was delighted to find a small refrigerator in my room! I took a shower and did a bit of washing of my clothing and went to sleep at about 10.20 pm when I was ready to drop.


A demain!